How Good Are Low-End Digital Cameras?

As a photographer, with some high-end equipment, I used to look down on point-and-shoot digicams, putting them in the same category as camera phone, i.e. not capable of taking any picture worth keeping. I was wrong. My experience with a Kodak CX7220 (sells for about $70), graciously provided by, turned out to be unexpectedly positive.

Kodak CX7220 About 6 years ago, back in 1999, I was at the peak of geekdom. I had quite a few geek toys, and digital cameras were the next big thing. Kodak’s $900 2MP DC290 was competing with Nikon’s $900 2MP 950, which drove the price of Kodak’s 1.6MP DC265 down. That’s the one I bought. It cost me over $600. It was big and heavy compared to current small cameras. It ate so much power that you could burn yourself taking the batteries out. There was no infrastructure in place for a consumer to get good prints out of digital pictures. The worst part about the DC265 was that the image quality was questionable at best. $600 didn’t buy much digital camera at the time.

Fast forward a few years, I bought a traditional 35mm film SLR, with a couple of lenses. I scanned the film on a flatbed scanner, printed on a basic inkjet printer, and suddenly started to get pictures worth hanging on my walls. That part was certainly exciting. I played with some specialized film bodies, and then took the plunge and bought a digital SLR (which made me throw away my brand loyalty for Nikon and move over to the Canon side of the fence). Image quality was good. I bought some high-end lenses, upgraded my printer, and image quality went higher. I recently pre-ordered the newest camera out there, which should be yet another big step forward and will likely require yet another printer upgrade.

The cost of such high-end equipment can reach dizzying heights, because its capabilities are far above what most consumers will ever need. So can the size and weight. Those constraints mean that most of the time I don’t have a camera with me. I have a very good compact film camera, but I find that having to shoot entire rolls of film is annoying. That’s exactly the reason why a small digital camera suddenly seemed ideal, even though I was afraid of the kind of results I would get. gave me a golden opportunity to see for myself what a current low-end digital camera can do. I got my hands on a Kodak CX7220, which is Kodak’s absolute entry-level camera today. Retailing for about $70, it barely costs more than a similarly featured film camera, and obviously has no film costs.

One of my Kodak CX7220 pictures So, what can the CX7220 do? It has a 2MP sensor, which on paper should be more than enough pixels for 4×6 prints, assuming that the image characteristics are decent. A 2x zoom that covers the entire “normal” range in 6 steps (39-78mm in 35mm-equivalent angles). Besides a fully-automatic mode, it also features special modes for portraits (blurry background), night (long exposure), landscapes (infinity focus) and macro (close focus). It has a self-timer, and the flash can be forced on or off. It provides exposure compensation. It has a tripod mount. The focus and exposure behaviors are actually documented.

The camera comes with manuals, software (I didn’t test the software), a USB cable, a wrist strap, a CRV3 battery, and an adapter plate for the Kodak EasyShare docks and printers.

Kodak obviously paid attention to its target market: consumers who aren’t necessarily computer-savvy, or maybe who don’t even have a computer. Comsumers who might feel at ease with an interface that’s as close to point-and-shoot as possible, with as few controls as possible to get in the way. There’s a reasonably clear separation between the photography controls and the digital controls, even though unfortunately some photography controls are buried into menus (I was surprised to see that the self-timer didn’t have a dedicated button, and that using the screen as a viewfinder requires to go two menus down).

The interface is non-modal, meaning that buttons always do the same thing (except obviously for the directional controls). At any time, you can take a picture by pressing the shutter release. At any time, you can review pictures by pressing the review button. At any time, you can go to the menu by pressing the menu button. It’s a very pleasant interface, which takes few button presses to get things done.

The CX7220 has 16MB of built-in memory, so that you will be able to take about 40 pictures even if you forget your memory card at home. While Kodak doesn’t recommend it because of concerns for battery life, it runs fine on standard AA batteries. Kodak claims that it will take up to 500 shots on a single CRV3 lithium battery, which is actually quite impressive.

Kodak’s EasyShare system allows to attach the camera directly on top of properly equipped printers, or on a computer-connected dock. I do not have the proper hardware to test those features, but obviously printing or e-mailing pictures can be done without having to touch anything on the computer, or without requiring a computer at all. It looks like a very nice system, and actually seems easier to use than a number of other consumer electronic devices that are scattered throughout the house. My mom could use it.

One of my Kodak CX7220 pictures Taking the camera for a spin, a few quirks quickly became apparent: the top dial, which is also used an an on/off switch, sticks out a little bit too much, and when using the camera in a tight belt pouch the camera sometimes turns on when taking the camera out of the pouch (not a big deal) or even putting it in (more annoying). The viewfinder is somewhat imprecise at the long end. Holding the camera in landscape mode against the naked eye didn’t exhibit any problem, but in portrait mode when wearing glasses framing with the viewfinder was problematic. I guess that I could get used to it, but on a first spin is was a small disappointment. Not a big deal, though, since the rear LCD is bright enough to use as a viewfinder, with its pleasantly high refresh rate. Unfortunately it takes 6 button presses to turn that feature on and off. Those are minor quirks, though, and they don’t really get in the way of taking good pictures. After a dozen shots I had learned to work around them and didn’t think about them any more.

The available angles of view might seem limited (only a 2x zoom with no wide angles and no long foval lengths to speak of), but in reality it turned out to be a very versatile range. The wide end is wide enough to capture a natural-feeling view, the long end allows to frame head-and shoulder portraits without having to get too close, so that the resulting look is flattering.

For a while when shooting, I felt an urge to control the shooting aperture, and the CX7220 doesn’t have any such control. The EXIF information tells the whole story: there is no aperture stop in the lens, it is always used wide open, only the shutter speed is used to control the exposure. This surprised me at first, but it quickly became apparent that it was a good idea: the lens is pretty slow to start with (f/3.8-f/5), and with the pixel size on the sensor (2.8 microns) there would be no point stopping down beyond f/5.6 because of diffraction. With the tiny sensor the depth of field is already massive, it is never a limiting factor. I am somewhat puzzled at the difference between the auto, portrait and lanscape modes, since the aperture is the same, and I guess that the only difference has to do with the distances at which the camera expects to focus. I wish that the camera had a histogram view or at least an indication for overexposure, but in reality I found that overexposed pictures looked overexposed when reviewed on the LCD, and exposure compensation did a perfect job.

One of my Kodak CX7220 pictures Finally, the moment of truth: the image quality. This is where I had a big surprise: the pictures look good. Really good. Exposure is almost always perfect, focus has no problem. Chromatic aberrations are very well controlled, there is barely a hint of magenta-green aberrations (less than a pixel), and only a small trace of blue fringing in UV-rich areas. Distortion is well controlled. Colors are vivid but natural, in-camera sharpening is set to just the right amount. I did a test print, straight out of the camera to my HP 7960 with no post-processing whatsoever, and the resulting 4×6 was excellent. My only complaint with the image quality is that the JPEG compression is quite aggressive, and at high magnifications it becomes quite visible. That is certainly not a problem when printing a 4×6 (272 dpi), but bigger enlargements can suffer (there’s only 153 dpi for an 8×10 print, less if you crop). It’s ironic that 6 years ago Kodak had the same problem in their DC260 and added a super-fine mode in the DC265 with a less aggressive JPEG compression, and yet that in 2005 they still haven’t figured out that it is a serious issue. Certainly I am not used to seeing JPEG artifacts in unprocessed pictures straight out of the camera at the highest quality setting.

As a conclusion, the CX7220 is a jewel of a camera (especially for less than $70 that it currently sells for). For an extremely low price, it takes pictures worth printing and hanging on a wall, something that I couldn’t say of my expensive DC265 a few years ago. Small-sensor digital cameras have made a lot of progress. If you want a camera that is small and light enough to go anywhere, won’t cost much to replace if it gets damaged, and takes great pictures, that’s the one. I started out highly skeptical of the image quality, thinking that such a camera would only be good for e-mail snapshots, and I ended up playing with a very capable imager. This is the kind of toy that any self-respecting geek must have. And if you have an old digital camera and aren’t happy with the image quality, maybe you should consider an upgrade. I am certainly planning to keep such a camera with me for all the opportunities where hauling around my high-end equipment isn’t appropriate.


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